News / Asia

Female Korean Political Heir Tapped As Presidential Candidate

Former Saenuri Party leader Park Guen-hye waves to supporters during a national convention of the ruling Saenuri Party for a presidential primary in Goyang, South Korea, August 20, 2012.
Former Saenuri Party leader Park Guen-hye waves to supporters during a national convention of the ruling Saenuri Party for a presidential primary in Goyang, South Korea, August 20, 2012.
SEOUL — South Korea's governing New Frontier (Saenuri) Party has selected Park Gyeun-hye, the daughter of a former dictator, as its candidate for president. Park begins the general election campaign as the conservative front-runner but a liberal political novice may prove to be her most formidable opponent in the December national election.

The announcement Monday of the winner of the presidential primary at the New Frontier Party's convention came as little surprise.

The party's election committee chairman, Kim Soo-han, declares Park Gyeun-hye the landslide winner, calling her victory a historical moment.

For the first time a major party in South Korea has selected a woman - as well as a child of a former president - as its candidate.

In results combining ballots of party members and citizens cast Sunday)and opinion polls, Park captured 84 percent of the primary vote.

In her 15-minute acceptance speech, Park notes the country faces numerous challenges, including being affected by the global economic crisis, threats from North Korea and a territorial dispute - although she did not single out Japan.

Park says this is a time South Korea needs a prepared and stable leader to confront these critical challenges. She says she will never accept any actions that threaten the nation's security or sovereignty.

The main opposition Democratic United Party is to decide on its candidate next month from among five finalists.

The DUP's primary frontrunner is Moon Jae-in who served as chief of staff during the administration of liberal president Roh Moo-hyun in the previous decade.

But many left of center say their best chance to defeat Park lies with a popular outsider and political novice. He is a high-profile university professor who became very wealthy as a software entrepreneur.
Ahn Cheol-soo has not joined any political party and despite increasing hints he will run for president, Ahn has yet to make a formal declaration with just four months remaining until election day.

Many observers say if Ahn runs as an independent that would split the left-wing vote further easing Park's path to victory. But Jangan University professor Park Chang-hwan does not expect that will happen.

The political analyst predicts Ahn and the DUP will reach a consensus on a unified opposition candidate.

Park, who is 60, in 2007 lost the Grand National Party nomination to current President Lee Myung-bak. Under current law the president is limited to a single five-year term.

Park has earned the nickname “Queen of Elections” for leading election comebacks for the conservatives. Her latest accomplishment in that realm was a widely unexpected victory for the party in elections for the national assembly in April.

Despite her high profile as a politician, the electorate knows little about her private life. She has never married. Park has previously stated that with no parents, husband or children her focus is solely on serving the nation.

Political analyst Park Chang-hwan notes the governing party candidate's popularity has been stable at around 40 percent since the last presidential election.

Park says that rating is a big political asset but her base has not been expanding and she has a weakness attracting the younger generation, moderates and those living in the capital.

Candidate Park, he says, must learn to communicate better with those outside her core support group.

Her father, Park Chung-hee, became president in the early 1960's when she was a child. The daughter was thrust into the national spotlight in her early 20's when a North Korean-backed assassin killed her mother in 1974. Park was then regarded as first lady for five years.

She suffered further personal tragedy when, in 1979, the intelligence agency chief killed her father inside the presidential Blue House compound.

President Park's 18 years of authoritarian rule, backed by tough martial laws imposed after he seized power in a 1961 military coup, remains a shadow cast over his daughter's quest to win his former post.

Many in the electorate are still bitter about Park's anti-democratic legacy while others are more forgiving -- considering him a key driver of helping to turn around the economy of an impoverished country that was devastated by war.

Steve Herman

A veteran journalist, Steve Herman is VOA's Southeast Asia Bureau Chief and Correspondent, based in Bangkok.

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